This article is from the March 2013 issue of Total Politics
"No." Rachel Reeves tilts her head and adopts an aristocratic expression of complete disdain. “I can categorically say I know the difference between debt and deficit.” Labour’s economic number two is emphatically answering a question about whether she has ever mixed up the two terms. It was a tease, but Reeves takes her economics seriously.
The shadow chief secretary to the Treasury is pregnant with her first child. This happy, life-changing event will lead to an odd pause for a front-rank British politician. Reeves, on call for constant media appearances to lambast the government for its economic failures, will disappear from public life for six months’ maternity leave.
Sitting in a small room on the Parliamentary estate overlooking the Thames, she is unwilling to launch into homilies on whether motherhood will change her. “I’m really excited about it but I don’t know what it means in terms of my day-to-day life.”
But there are changes about Reeves beyond the obvious bump. Her demeanour is more relaxed, the smile appears more often, but there is also a more visible confidence than when she was first promoted to Ed Balls’s economic team in 2011. She has more important things in life to experience over the next few months but, when she emerges again in the second half of 2013, Reeves will form a key plank in Labour’s election campaign. Many in her party are pondering whether she could make it to the very top.
“The interesting thing about Rachel,” says one frontbench colleague over a cup of tea in Parliament, “is that she doesn’t belong in either of the Eds’ camps. Sure, she works closely with Ed Balls but she makes sure that she can’t be viewed as too close.” Another Labour MP remarks how he is waiting with interest to learn more about her politics. He thinks she could be worth listening to.
Reeves is similar to her fellow fast risers – including Chuka Umunna, Stella Creasy and Liz Kendall – in being noted but not yet fully understood. The shadow chief secretary appears to be the most substantial of the next generation in her colleagues’ eyes. She has the policy bone fides with a PPE degree from Oxford and an economics masters from the London School of Economics. She previously worked for the Bank of England and HBOS (luckily for her in Leeds, well away from the City of London). It is the sort of CV that confirms perennial advancement in life.
In Parliament, Reeves has done the media rounds required of opposition politicians. She also ensures she’s seen visiting constituencies – “I think it’s really important that Labour MPs get out of Westminster.” Reeves likes to host her own version of Cameron Direct, taking questions from members of the public because “you get a better idea on how policies work and what policies will work.”
If this sounds a little too perfect, then Reeves does not make a habit of breaking the party line. Her first political memory is watching Neil Kinnock on TV in 1987. However, she is also capable of an engaging bluntness and candid enough to admit a Labour government of 2015 would not immediately be able to create a land of milk and honey. “We know what economic mess we’re going to inherit, it’s difficult to set out what we would do then.”
For someone serving on the shadow Treasury team, Reeves is strikingly pessimistic when discussing her party’s economic reputation among the public. Without it, of course, Labour has no chance of being, at the very least, the larger coalition partner after the next election.
“We had two things,” she intones. “The election defeat in 2010 was the second worst since the extension of the franchise. Under our watch, we had a big recession that hurt a lot of people, so it’s not surprising that our economic competence ratings have taken a hit.”
That’s the history, but what about recapturing the electorate’s trust before the 2015 election? Reeves continues: “Some of that has come back since the election and people’s perceptions of our competence on economic management have improved.
“That gap with the Conservatives has narrowed substantially but there’s still work to do. And there will be work to do right up to election day to show we can be trusted with every pound of taxpayers’ money and we recognise that fiscal credibility has to underpin everything we do. That is part of my job – to try and rebuild that credibility.”
As the second most senior member of Labour’s Treasury team, Reeves has an office close to Ed Balls’s in the Norman Shaw South building, the opposition stronghold in the Palace of Westminster. Balls is quickly getting a reputation as the man most likely to rile David Cameron but one habit of his that Reeves won’t join in with is the flatlining gesture Balls deploys in the Commons chamber to wind up Cameron and George Osborne.
“I’m a bit more restrained,” she says. Reeves describes Balls in maverick terms, as someone who “went out on a limb” when saying the government was risking a double dip recession with its cuts. “I think [his view] has been vindicated.”
The shadow chief secretary also believes her party leader has been willing to take risks. “Ed Miliband hasn’t played it safe. He’s taken some quite big calls as leader of the party, whether it’s taking on the banks, News International or the energy companies.” She believes the public views Labour’s leader as someone “who is different and a man of integrity”. In Reeves’s view, he is “someone who hasn’t defended the status quo or said the easy things. No politician has ever taken on Rupert Murdoch in the way that Ed [Miliband] has. People might not get as engaged with all the detail as we in here do but people do see that as something different.”
Standing out as different from the rest of Westminster could prove a strong point at a time when voters often view politicians as all the same. This won’t win a general election by itself, however.
Reeves admits that 2013 is a crucial time for the party: “This year is a really important year for either the government to prove they’re up to the job or Labour to prove that they’re not. It’s also an important year for policy development because the reality is, in a year or 18 months from now, we’re going to be on the election campaign.”
Labour’s poll lead has hovered around the 10 per cent mark for some time. At the time of writing, pollsters were still arguing over whether a recent increase marked a genuine swing to Labour but certainly there is yet to be a sign of it hitting the 20 per cent leads marked by parties heading to power. Does Reeves believe Labour’s poll lead is soft?
“There’s a long way to go until the election,” she replies. “Most people have not thought about how they are going to vote in 2015. It’s not something they spend a lot of time thinking about. They won’t make up their mind until nearer the time so there is still a lot of work to do from now until the 2015 election.”
Tony Blair recently talked of Ed Miliband needing to show the orientation of his party in 2013. Asked if she agrees with the former Labour leader, Reeves laughs and initially sounds dismissive: “Orientation? I don’t know exactly what that means. You mean like direction? It sounds like orienteering or something you did at school.”
She does note, however, that Labour needs to move towards a firm offer to voters. She says: “People are really crying out for change. They’ve seen the financial crisis. They’ve seen other institutions they’ve believed and trusted in, the media for example, have their integrity called into question. The Conservatives and Lib Dems came in offering that change and people haven’t seen it.”
The next election will, in Reeves’s view, see people “hankering for change more than they were in 2010, 2005 or 2001. A backward-looking message doesn’t really resonate with people now.”
She adds: “I don’t think it’s about having to sell change to the electorate. I think it’s the electorate that’s calling out for change.”
Understanding the public’s position is key to this Reevesian analysis. The British Investment Bank, which would “transform the way small businesses access finance” and the Living Wage campaign are examples of the “big change message” which she sees as resonating with the public.
The projected government borrowing figures make for gruesome reading. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that the figures for 2012-13 will hit £125.4bn. I ask if Reeves believes it will be difficult for the party to be trusted on the economy when Labour won’t lay out spending plans.
“We’ve said some things we would be doing now if we were in power,” replies Reeves. “Mainly the example of the Bank Bonus Tax [Labour’s suggested 50 per cent rate]. We would also restrict Pensions Tax Relief. We wouldn’t be going ahead with the cut in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p in the pound.”
She continues: “We’re not in a position to lay out detailed plans for spending. It’s difficult to know what the economy will be doing in 2.5 weeks’ time, let alone 2.5 years. The economy for the last two years has grown by 0.4 per cent. The chancellor in his autumn statement in 2010 said it would grow something like fifteen times faster than that. It’s difficult to set out plans when we don’t know what will happen in the next 2.5 years.
“What we do know is that the government’s plan has failed, growth has been fifteen times lower than the government estimated, other countries are growing, we’re 18th out of 20 in the G20 league time for growth.”
Some financial commentators agree with Reeves that it is becoming incredibly difficult to predict what the economy will be doing in both the short and long term. As an economist, does Reeves believe then that it is becoming impossible to predict what the economy will do?
She replies: “There is a pretty sound analysis of why we haven’t grown. If you look at the UK economy, compared to Germany or the US for example, we attempted a faster pace of deficit reduction than those economies and it backfired. This idea of the chancellor’s – that expansionary fiscal contraction, if you cut the public deficit and put up taxes the private sector will somehow fill the gap – hasn’t turned out to be true.”
Reeves accuses the government of “putting its political pride before the national interest in sticking to a plan that has demonstrably failed.” She adds: “I don’t think it has a chance of succeeding. I didn’t think it could have ever succeeded, because if you try and cut that quickly, you’re choking off the recovery you need for growth. A stool needs three legs to stand up; the deficit reduction stool needs tax increases, it needs public spending restraint and it needs economic growth. If you just have two of those legs, the stool falls over.”
A motif throughout the interview, Reeves ensures that she always remembers to use examples from everyday life. On banking, rather than a supranational view of Britain’s finance industry, Reeves always refers to the little people: “small businesses that need a loan or the family that wants more credit on its credit card.”
She likes the fact that Labour says “some things the banks don’t want to hear” but denies policies like the Bank Bonus Tax will simply see City workers flood to other financial jurisdictions.
She says: “There are always threats of moving overseas but, ultimately, the banks know from the crisis of 2007-08 that they need to be in a jurisdiction that is going to stand behind them. The bank guarantees and quantitative easing have been some of the things that have kept the banks solvent, so I think a lot of those threats are overplayed.”
There is a mixed message here, because the former banker also wants “banks to succeed and create jobs and investment.” The balancing act from Labour – on the side of the ‘ordinary’ people but also aware of the importance of the financial sector – continues.
Reeves speaks incredibly quickly once in full flow. The words pour out about growth plans, the Living Wage, George Osborne, or the Bank Bonus Tax. But it is not politics that gets Reeves most animated. Mention chess and Reeves’s complexion changes completely. The seriousness disappears, replaced by a grin as she remembers playing her hero Gary Kasparov in London. “It was fantastic to meet him,” she enthuses.
Chess provided Reeves with key qualities that have proved invaluable to her career advancement: “Concentration, thinking ahead all the time, thinking about what your opponent is doing.” She believes it helped her with the maths and logic that made her such an academic star. Inspired by a teacher at primary school, Reeves first picked up a pawn when she was seven. No mean player, she was national under-14 champion (she thinks her Dad has the trophy somewhere) and can still play to a high level. At a charity tournament in London recently, Reeves beat a grandmaster. Kasparov was present and tips from her hero helped, although she won’t reveal what they were.
Reeves has worked with Kasparov to promote chess in schools. This includes her Leeds constituency. “If you live on a tough estate in Leeds,” she explains, “it’s not something that you’re likely to be exposed to but we’ve got a chess coach coming in. Soon there will be six schools in Leeds that are being supported by it. Gary Kasparov is involved in that charity, so I met him because the schools taking part were invited down to Parliament to meet him.”
There is no longer much time in the shadow chief secretary’s diary to play but Reeves does go into her local schools to compete with the kids. Her love for it is undimmed, “I still get that buzz when I play.”
The current frontbencher knows her Labour history too. A grand project is a planned biography of Alice Bacon. Elected in 1945, Bacon was the first female MP to represent Leeds. Reeves is the second. A 200-page draft has been completed and Reeves has loved conducting the interviews for the book with figures such as former speaker Betty Boothroyd and the now late Walter Harrison, the Labour deputy chief whip immortalised as one of the main characters in acclaimed play, This House.
Questions about Reeves’s voice follow her career. One Labour MP abruptly calls her accent “a killer” to her political ambitions. It is not a problem in a softly-spoken one-to-one interview. There is one obvious forerunner who changed her speaking tone, on her way to No 10. Type ‘Margaret Thatcher voice before/after’ into YouTube to note how these things can be overcome.
Instead of continuing the grind of opposition politics, Reeves heads off for her maternity leave – with the uncertain economic picture and the frantic pace of politics, who knows what awaits this potential leader upon her return?